Depending on your point of view, part of the jazz world is either blessed or cursed by an obsession with tradition. Many of today's most popular jazz musicians have spent years trying to master a style that was developed over forty years ago, with little interest in developments that followed. If their idols had espoused the same reactionary view of musical history, they would have been playing music that was not far removed from the first documented jazz recording in 1917. Such historicism is not easy: anyone who spends ten years trying to master John Coltrane's early-1960s style must compete not only with his recordings, which are constantly being reissued, but also with the fact that the master himself moved on and left his earlier self — as well as his latter-day imitators — far behind. Such musings make one wary of tribute bands; therefore, I was somewhat apprehensive when I learned that the San Francisco Jazz Collective was coming to the Michigan Theater on Friday, March 31, with a program revisiting the music of Herbie Hancock.
My uneasiness was unfounded. The San Francisco Jazz Collective began in 2004 under the leadership of the well-known saxophonist Joshua Redman. Each year the ensemble focuses on the work of a major jazz figure such as John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, but rather than simply re-create the master's recordings, let us say in the mold of Lincoln Center, it offers its own take on this music and intersperses those works with original compositions by members of the collective. Listening to the San Francisco Collective's recordings of works by Ornette Coleman, one is struck by the originality of the arrangements and by the fact that no one is imitating anyone from the original recordings.
Redman is the front man, but the Collective is a multigenerational mix of first-class musicians, most of whom are leaders in their own right. Redman shares the front line with the majestic trumpet player Nicholas Payton, trombonist Andre Hayward, and Miguel Zenón on alto sax and flute. Well known to Ann Arbor audiences, Payton seems able to fit in any style without sacrificing his individuality. Hayward, who also plays with the Lincoln Center orchestra, is a rising star on his instrument. Zenón is a fiery soloist with a distinctive cutting saxophone sound who combines modern jazz with Latin elements to great advantage. They are joined by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, a leader in the experimental movements of the 1960s and one of the most original instrumentalists in jazz. Indeed, Herbie Hancock was a sideman on some of Hutcherson's classic late-1960s Blue Note albums.
The rhythm section for this date will consist of Renee Rosnes on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Rosnes has established herself as a powerful modern jazz pianist with a fabulous technique, but she's also a distinctive composer. In sum, this is an all-star group of top-notch soloists, but it has a collective identity that is defined by the arrangements of older material mixed with wonderful new compositions.
[Review published March 2006]